Seafood in Southcentral Alaska for the most part means fish.
But there’s another growing seafood sector in the region, taking shape in shellfish and kelp farms. The Alaska Mariculture Task Force, convened by former Gov. Bill Walker in 2016, just released its recommendations on how to turn the new industry into booming business.
“We have more coastline than all of the Lower 48 combined," said Alicia Bishop, the aquaculture coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region. “And it really puts us in a unique situation to grow a sustainable mariculture industry in Alaska.”
Mariculture by definition is the farming and enhancement of seaweed and shellfish.
In Alaska, it’s mostly oysters and kelp, so far.
But farmers are growing other species — like blue mussels and geoducks, a species of large saltwater clam.
The report said a third of the state’s 85 licensed aquatic farms are in Southcentral Alaska. A lot of it’s happening in Kachemak Bay, where there are 13 shellfish farms.
Still, there are barriers to entry that make it hard for new farmers to get in the game.
Jeff Hetrick was on the Mariculture Task Force and is the mariculture director of the Alutiiq Pride Marine Institute in Seward. The institute, in part, cultivates shellfish to seed aquatic farms and enhance shellfish harvests in neighboring tribal communities.
He said the challenges facing the industry mostly come from the fact it’s new.
“The first oyster farm [in Alaska] started really in earnest down in Southeast Alaska in the early 1980s," he said. "And it's sort of been a cottage industry from then until even now.”
Bishop said the permitting process for new farmers can be cumbersome. There are a lot of agencies involved and it can be difficult for farmers to know where to start. Last year, a backlog of applications built up amid the pandemic.
NOAA’s drafting a document to help farmers get through that process.
“In the hopes of getting more farms in the water," Bishop said.
She said the next step will be improving that process to make it more efficient.
“Maybe that’s making applications that you can apply online," she said. "Maybe that’s consolidating information from multiple agencies into one form.”
The task force is advocating mariculture programs at the college level through the University of Alaska, as well as the creation of a Mariculture Research and Training Center.
And it wants to make it easier for farmers to get loans and grants to support their businesses.
“The biggest obstacle, I think, would be just the risk associated," Hetrick said. "There’s not really a lot of public money available to invest in mariculture. It has to come for the person who wants to do it, and they have to be willing to risk that, or at least risk some of their assets to get the capital needed.”
He said one way to make that easier on new farmers is to build up channels to share industry knowledge.
In Prince William Sound, there’s already Blue Wave Futures, a group of kelp farmers that work together on permitting and share information about getting started. Homer has the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Co-Op, which operates a hatchery that member farms can use.
Hetrick said those kind of groups are helpful because they show aspiring farmers it can be done.
“So it’s not just a napkin calculation, but you can see someone making a good living through mariculture," he said. "And I think that will excite and entice more people to get involved.”
The report sets an ambitious goal: Turn the state’s mariculture business into a $100 million industry. In 2019, the state’s mariculture industry brought in $1.4 million in sales, according to NOAA.
Hetrick said there’s no magic bullet in the plan to reach that goal. But he said bringing people together from across the state and outlining their respective roles in the system will give them direction as they move mariculture toward the future.